NFL

NFL 2021: Time to bet against Brady? – The experts have their say

By Sports Desk September 10, 2021

If the opener is any evidence, the 2021 NFL season is set to be a rollercoaster ride.

Defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged victorious from a frenetic encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, raising their Super Bowl LV title banner and then prevailing 31-29.

No team has won the Super Bowl in successive years since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did so in the 2004 season. He will aim to repeat the feat having led the Bucs to glory last year, but do they deserve their status as favourites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, or will the Kansas City Chiefs or another of their potential challengers stand triumphant in Los Angeles come February?

With a jam-packed first Sunday of the campaign on the horizon, Stats Perform's panel of experts make their predictions for what promises to be a fascinating season.

Nicholas McGee: Shanahan puts his Super Bowl curse to bed

AFC Champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Champion: San Francisco 49ers
MVP: Tom Brady

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has endured his fair share of Super Bowl heartbreak, receiving criticism after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator and in the wake of the Niners' fourth-quarter collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV two seasons ago.

But the roster Shanahan has at his disposal is one primed to contend to go deep into the postseason again. Nick Bosa leads an extremely deep defensive line that has the talent to take over games while the offense is flush with playmakers. The question is when dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the draft, will be ready to win the starting quarterback job from Jimmy Garoppolo.

With Lance adding another element to the rushing offense, a ground attack that ranked second in yards per game in 2019 has the potential to become a near-unstoppable force and lay the foundation for Shanahan to finally get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

In Tampa, Brady looks to be somehow getting stronger with age and, if that continues throughout the campaign and the Bucs are contending to repeat as champions, it will be difficult to look past him for MVP. With pass rushers that can overwhelm opponents and a diverse rushing attack, the 49ers have a potential formula to dictate a game against Tampa and end Brady's hopes of an eighth title.

The Browns have a strong case for the top running game in the NFL going into the season. An excellent supporting cast for Baker Mayfield and a superb offensive line means the 2018 number one overall pick has everything he needs to push Cleveland to a deep postseason run. On defense, the Browns have made astute additions at linebacker and in the secondary and boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. Yet in a matchup between their head coach Kevin Stefanski and Shanahan, the nod has to go to the league's pre-eminent play-caller.

Rob Lancaster: Dak is back, and so are the Cowboys as an NFC force!

AFC Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Dak Prescott

How 'bout them Cowboys! The call may be brave, but the NFC has not seen a back-to-back champion since the Seahawks in 2014 and Dallas' performance in the opener was one of a team that should not only be favourite for their NFC East division but also contend for a conference title they will see as long overdue.

The Cowboys piled up points when Dak Prescott was healthy, though they didn't equate to wins. His 403 passing yards and three touchdowns were also not enough against the Bucs, but they should serve to allay concerns over the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season or the shoulder issue that overshadowed his preseason and boost hopes he can perform at a level that helped Dallas average 509.5 net yards per game in the first four weeks of the previous campaign.

The key to Dallas realising their potential is the defense, where the Cowboys hope the presence of Dan Quinn as coordinator should help see vast improvements. The early signs were promising against Tampa Bay as a team that allowed 2,541 rushing yards last year gave up only 52 to the Buccaneers on Thursday. If they can become even an average defense this season and get the best out of Prescott, that is a recipe for a Super Bowl challenge. 

As for the Chiefs, a Super Bowl defeat is one thing, but they were embarrassed by the Bucs. The response has been to improve the offensive line, making sure Patrick Mahomes has time to work his magic. Not only will they get back to the big game, this time they will triumph, dashing Jerry Jones' dream of hosting a title parade in Texas.

Chris Myson: Never bet against Brady

AFC champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP: Tom Brady

The Buccaneers took time to find their groove last season, understandably given Brady moved to a new offense after 20 years in New England as the team coped with a disrupted preseason. A roster with few obvious holes put it all together down the stretch, a feat that became more remarkable when it later emerged the ageless Brady – whose 40 passing touchdowns was the second-highest total of his remarkable career – played the whole season with a torn MCL.

After the Bucs incredibly found a way to ensure they will return all 22 starters, their head coach and both coordinators, it would be brave to bet against them at least coming close to a repeat with a fit and firing Brady showing just how comfortable he now he is in Tampa by throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with two interceptions, and leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys.

The Browns, in their second year with impressive offensive mind Stefanski, continue to draft and recruit wisely under GM Andrew Berry. With star wideout Odell Beckham Jr returning from injury with a point to prove, Mayfield poised for a career year and a formidable rushing attack already in place, they will relish another shot at the Chiefs after pushing them all the way in a 22-17 Divisional Round defeat.

Ben Spratt: Watch out, Peyton – Mahomes is coming for your record!

AFC champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC champion: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs may well have been entering this season as two-time reigning champions if not for an awful Super Bowl showing from their offensive line, which allowed superstar quarterback Mahomes to be pressured 33 times by the Buccaneers.

Kansas City addressed that issue in the offseason and will hope they have now found a fix. Effective pass protection should take the Chiefs all the way and mean an outstanding regular season for Mahomes, who might even fancy a shot at Peyton Manning's single-season record of 55 touchdowns with a 17th game to play with.

That O-Line would face the ultimate test if the Rams also made the big game, however, tasked with keeping Aaron Donald away from Mahomes. It is an improvement to the Rams' own weakest element – their QB, with Matthew Stafford in for Jared Goff – that figures to bring them into contention to emerge from the NFC as they did in the 2018 season.

Related items

  • El Clasico: Alaba and Vinicius illustrate widening gap between Madrid and Barca El Clasico: Alaba and Vinicius illustrate widening gap between Madrid and Barca

    David Alaba is one of few footballers who can claim to have experienced consistent success against Barcelona in the 21st century and he once again proved a thorn in their side as El Clasico went in Real Madrid's favour at Camp Nou.

    In three games against Barca for Bayern Munich, Alaba enjoyed a 100 per cent win record.

    Bayern scored 15 goals and conceded just two across those matches, eight of those coming in Die Roten's incredible Champions League quarter-final win of 2020.

    And the Austria international remains unbeaten versus the Blaugrana, his stunning left-foot finish helping settle a game in which Barca misfired in their first Clasico since Lionel Messi's departure and Madrid's brightest young talent rose to the occasion.

     

    Alaba opens his account in style

    Alaba's goal, his first since joining Madrid, was one worthy of winning a fixture of such magnitude. Having won the ball from Memphis Depay on the edge of his own box, he surged forward before finding Vinicius Junior on the left flank.

    The former Bayern star initially wanted the return pass but Vinicius eschewed that option, instead playing a superb ball to Rodrygo Goes in the centre.

    Rodrygo's pass to find Alaba continuing his charge was inch-perfect, only bettered by the quality of a blistering finish from just inside the area.

    Barca struggled to deal with Madrid's threat down the left flank throughout, Vinicius taking the chance to emerge as the star of a Clasico absent its departed modern-day leading man.

    Vinicius shines in the spotlight

    Vinicius went into the fixture having scored seven goals and provided the assist for three in all competitions. He did not add to either of those tallies but his influence across the Brazilian's 87 minutes on the pitch was obvious,

    Ensuring Sergino Dest endured a difficult afternoon at both ends of the pitch, Vinicius attempted a game-high eight dribbles, four of which were successful.

    No player on the field participated in (20) or won more duels (10) as Vinicius excelled at putting Barca under pressure.

    Only Depay (six) and Ansu Fati (seven) had more touches in the opposition box, yet Barca's inability to make the most of those touches was telling.

    Barca bereft of attacking inspiration

    Alaba's shot that gave Madrid the lead had an Expected Goals (xG) value of 0.08, reflecting the difficulty he should have had in beating Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

    It came seven minutes after Dest had blazed high over the crossbar with the goal seemingly at his mercy from close range. Barca did not have a chance as presentable until Sergio Aguero scored with a point-blank effort from effectively the final kick of the game after Lucas Vazquez had put it to bed with Madrid's second goal.

    Barca finished with 12 shots but only two on target. Madrid hit the target with five of their 10 efforts. Nine of Barca's shots came from inside the box but they ended a frustrating encounter with only two 'big chances' compared to three for Los Blancos.

    Those numbers are reflective of a game in which, without Messi there to stretch Madrid's shape, Carlo Ancelotti's men succeeded in staying deep and compact and hitting Barca on the counter, which they twice did to devastating effect.

    When Barca got into the final third, the lack of creativity and threat in contrast to Madrid was startling.

    Ronald Koeman could do nothing to prevent Messi from leaving under the financial pressures faced by Barca and he certainly cannot be blamed for a howitzer of a strike from Alaba that tilted matters in Madrid's favour.

    Yet there will surely be questions asked as to how a man who played under Johan Cruyff at Barca can oversee a team that, at least on Sunday, was so desperately short of the attacking flair that has for so long defined this famous club.

    The final score may have looked tight but, in the post-Messi era, the gap between Barca and their arch-rivals is a chasm.

  • Can Derrick Henry break Eric Dickerson's rushing record? Can Derrick Henry break Eric Dickerson's rushing record?

    Even in an age where the passing game is king, the best teams in the NFL can still fall victim to a dominant rushing performance.

    Derrick Henry proved as much on Monday Night Football in Week 6, putting the Buffalo Bills to the sword with a 143-yard, three-touchdown performance as the Tennessee Titans claimed a thrilling primetime win.

    It was Henry's fifth successive 100-yard game and his third this season with three touchdowns.

    Unsurprisingly, the man who has won the rushing title in each of the last two seasons again leads the league in yardage on the ground.

    More noteworthy, however, is the fact Henry is on pace to comfortably break Eric Dickerson's record for most rushing yards in a single season.

    Dickerson's mark of 2,105 has stood since 1984, but Henry critically has the benefit of a 17th game in which to make NFL history.

    But is Henry's pace sustainable? And, beyond writing one of the most incredible chapters in the NFL record books, what would it mean if Henry does surpass Dickerson?

    Henry's potentially historic average

    Following his dominant showing against Buffalo, Henry is averaging 130.5 yards per game, putting him on track for 2,219.

    Such a gaudy average would be unsustainable for most backs. However, Henry has the exceptional skill set to again prove as the exception.

    He finished last season with similar numbers, putting up 126.7 yards per game while leading the league with 378 carries – Dalvin Cook was second with 312 –  as the Titans star surpassed 2,000 for the first time in his career.

    And his frightening combination of his size and speed has allowed Henry to display durability beyond most players at his position.

    Henry has missed only one game across the previous two seasons, a period in which he carried the ball a league-high 681 times, with his 6ft 3in and 247lb frame and his explosiveness ensuring it is opposing defenders who typically come off worst in collisions.

    A favourable schedule

    Speaking to that explosiveness is Henry's 2021 yards before contact per attempt average of 3.01. That figure is comfortably above the league average of 2.40 and the difficulty in stopping Henry once he bursts to the second level of the defense is reflected by his number of big-play runs.

    Henry leads the league with 19 rushes of 10 yards or more while he is the only player in the NFL with two runs of at least 50 yards.

    Simply put, being in the path of this behemoth when he breaks into the open field is the most difficult position for an NFL defender to be in, and he will face plenty of defenses vulnerable to run during the remainder of the season.

    On Sunday, the Titans face a Kansas City Chiefs defense ranked 30th in rush yards per attempt allowed (5.15), with six of the last 11 weeks of the season seeing Tennessee meet a team ranked in the bottom half of the league by that metric.

    The blend of Henry's proclivity for big gains and a schedule that should present a plethora of opportunities for displays akin to his devastating effort in Week 6 is a perfect recipe for the former Alabama star sustaining his current pace and shattering Dickerson's record, which would be significant for several reasons.

    Destined for Canton?

    The magnitude of Henry breaking the rushing record cannot be overstated.

    At present, it is only the advent of the 17th game that would make his current pace enough for him to surpass Dickerson, who averaged an astonishing 131.6 yards across 16 games.

    Yet that would not detract from the scale of Henry's achievement, with that potential piece of history standing as a monument to his consistency.

    In addition to claiming a record that has long since seemed unbreakable, Henry would become the first player in NFL history to record multiple 2,000-yard seasons, doing so in successive years.

    Putting that into context, no player in NFL history has even posted back-to-back 1,900-yard seasons, with Dickerson the sole player to go over 1,800 yards in consecutive years, his record-breaking 1984 following a 1983 campaign he finished with 1,808 yards as a rookie.

    Henry may only be in his sixth season as a pro but, should he maintain his pace and make NFL history, he can surely look forward to a place in the Hall of Fame.

    The argument could be made that he would require a longer spell of dominance to secure a spot in Canton. However, Henry is on course for an unmatched two-year run at a time where the unstoppable bell-cow running back is considered a thing of the past.

    This is the era of committee backfields, one where any running back taken in the first round can be viewed as a reach, and yet Henry is producing at an unprecedented rate amid a workload that would physically break many tailbacks and carrying the Titans to victories that have helped establish a two-game lead in the AFC South as they look for back-to-back division titles.

    Tennessee's flaws on defense will likely prevent the Titans from seriously contending for a deep playoff run this year, but Henry has the distinct opportunity to make sure this season is memorable for entirely different reasons that would be worthy of him being immortalised and receiving a gold jacket after an increasingly astounding career comes to a close.

  • On the right track, or destined for failure? How Solskjaer's Man Utd tenure compares to Klopp's early days On the right track, or destined for failure? How Solskjaer's Man Utd tenure compares to Klopp's early days

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often seems destined to fail at Manchester United, and this season the stakes appear higher.

    With media scrutiny mounting, Solskjaer's future looked bleak at half-time against Atalanta on Wednesday, with United 2-0 down and staring at a fifth defeat in eight games across all competitions.

    "There is pressure all the time. There is pressure on me of course but we've been through this before and come through it stronger as a team and as individuals," Solskjaer said before that match.

    His players came good. Goals from Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose arrival seems to have presented more questions than answers regarding Solskjaer's tactical set-up, rescued a vital three points in the Champions League, but Sunday brings an altogether different challenge, with Liverpool in town.

    How the managers match up

    Prior to the clash with Atalanta, Solskjaer had taken charge of 162 games at United, with Jurgen Klopp having hit that figure at Liverpool back in September 2018.

    Four months earlier, Liverpool had slipped to a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Strengthened by the arrivals of Alisson and Fabinho, they would go on to win the European trophy in 2019 – Klopp's first piece of silverware at Anfield. A Premier League title followed in 2019-20.

    Yet looking back over the pair's first 162 matches at the helm, it is Solskjaer who can boast the better win percentage (54.9 compared to 53.1).

    While Klopp recorded fewer defeats in those games (31 to 37), Solskjaer won 86 times, three more than the Liverpool boss managed.

    Klopp did, however, take Liverpool to two finals in his first half-season in charge, only to lose both, in the EFL Cup and Europa League. His third final, and the last within his first 162 games, was the defeat to Madrid in Kiev.

    Solskjaer, comparatively, has reached just one final – United going down on penalties in the Europa League showdown against Villarreal at the end of last season.

    United scored 299 goals under Solskjaer before Wednesday, from an expected goals (xG) value of 269.6, suggesting the level of chances they have created has not quite matched the finishing. That xG figure outperforms Liverpool's xG of 259.9, though the Reds netted 327 times.

    Defence has been a major cause for concern this term, but overall Solskjaer's United kept 59 clean sheets in 162 games prior to tackling Atalanta, conceding 168 goals.

    An expected goals against (xGA) of 185.2 suggests United's goalkeepers had plenty to do, though Liverpool only kept 62 clean sheets in the same amount of matches under Klopp, conceding four more goals (172).

    Alisson's signing in July 2018 has certainly proved key, given Liverpool's xGA from Klopp's first 162 games was 135.3, suggesting goalkeeping may have been responsible for some of the Reds' issues.

    On the right track?

    "We've progressed over the years since I was [first here for] half a season. Sixth, third, second. You can see the progress, development and improvement. This season we still want to improve. We've signed players that have raised expectations," Solskjaer said before the Atalanta game.

    While the underlying metrics may back up Solskjaer's point, digging deeper presents a more worrying picture.

    United's goal tallies have improved, yet Solskjaer's crux is clearly in defence. His team allowed 685 shots last season, 70 more than in 2019-20 from the same number of games (61), with their xGA leaping from 59.2 to 71.5.

    Klopp's side, on the other hand, managed to get Liverpool's defeats down from 12 to nine (in both 2016-17 and 2017-18) to seven in his third full season.

    As Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah hit their stride, Liverpool's goal totals ticked up, from 87 to 92 to 129, and their highest xGA value in this period was 49.5, way down on United's worst figure.

    While there may be similarities in results, Klopp used the first half of his Liverpool spell to implement a style of play, and lay the groundwork for European and domestic triumphs.

    Solskjaer will insist he has a vision of what his incarnation of United should be, and though his record against other 'big six' Premier League sides is decent (W13 D10 L10), Liverpool are unbeaten in 18 league games, the longest current run in the top four tiers of English football.

    Away from Anfield, they have scored at least three goals in each of their last five Premier League games. United have not kept a clean sheet at home in nine top-flight matches and, despite the calibre of players brought in during Solskjaer's tenure, the old rivals look worlds apart.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.